Teaching Cyberian Politics by Leonard Williams
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Teaching Cyberian Politics by Leonard Williams

This essay discusses the rewards of a college course on "the politics of cyberspace." With a dynamic syllabus linked to a Web page of readings and assignments, such a course lets instructors relish the roles of facilitator and learner. Combining lectures and discussions with experiential work in the computer lab, the course covered topics ranging from the history and ontology of the Internet to the governmental presence and political activity now found on the World Wide Web. Students found the course exciting because it let them directly experience the unique aspects of cyberculture (e.g., interactivity) and access information resources that they will use time and again. Instructors will find the course helpful in developing students' critical thinking skills and expanding their understandings of politics and culture.

Contents

Course Content
Unique Features
Conclusion
References

It all started innocently enough - sending electronic mail to colleagues in the office, then to friends and family in other cities, and then even to complete strangers (No wonder it has been called the gateway drug). It wasn't long before I moved on to harder stuff - FTP, Gopher, and now, the Web. Surfing only for information, at first, and then for pleasure, I soon started to turn other people on. I tell you, once you're caught in it, there's no escape.

Without a doubt, addiction has been the metaphor for the 1990s. Indeed, in one reverie, I saw myself beginning a class on "the politics of cyberspace" from just that standpoint - opening it with a session from yet another 12-step program. More lucid when the first day of class actually arrived, I actually began the course with a rather straightforward discussion of the Internet's role in the 1996 United States Presidential campaign, the types of Internet-based assignments I had used in other courses, and in a slightly confessional spirit, something of the extent of my own Internet addiction. All in all, it was a modest beginning to what became one of the most rewarding courses I have ever taught.

Course Content

From the outset, this course on cyberpolitics offered a great opportunity to try out the role of facilitator rather than expert. Although the teacher in an experiential course should be an experienced player, he or she does not need to be the sole repository of knowledge. Given the ever-expanding and ever-changing nature of the Net, it is doubtful that anyone could attain that level of expertise. Since students have responsibility for their own learning, a dynamic syllabus linked to a Web page of assignments provides just the sort of encouragement students need to take charge. Offered during a January inter-term, the course attracted students from various backgrounds - men and women were equally represented, and first-year students outnumbered upper-class students by a 2-1 margin. Although the course appealed primarily to students majoring in political science, a business major interested in computers also enrolled to make things lively. Anticipating various levels of preparation and skill, I planned to evaluate student performance on the basis of electronically mailed comments, class discussion, and journals.

Each day's class session began with a brief lecture and extensive class discussion. Since the course was designed for a January inter-term, readings were drawn from two texts on the political and cultural aspects of the Internet and the World Wide Web (Katz, 1997; Rash, 1997). For a course offered during a full semester, one could use additional texts drawn from a steadily growing literature (e.g., Corrado and Firestone, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Sardar and Ravetz, 1996; Tsagarousianou et al., 1998). I supplemented the texts with other articles and essays found on the Web,which students accessed through links on the course page. The remainder of each class session involved work in the computer lab, since immersion is as central to teaching about cyberspace as it is to teaching a foreign language.

Since some students entered the class as adept users and others did not, the course began with units on the history and ontology of the Net. From the assigned texts and documents, students learned how the Internet began in a remarkable confluence of individual initiative and institutional support. They explored many forms of computer mediated communication (from Web pages to newsgroups to chat rooms), learned basic principles of netiquette, and became acquainted with criteria for evaluating information sources.

After this general introduction, our attention turned to the political implications of the Internet, that is, understanding the sorts of people who use it, how, and why. Among the many surveys of Internet users available, the Digital Citizen Survey (conducted by Luntz Research Companies for Wired magazine and Merrill Lynch) provided a good look at the demographics and political views of "connected" citizens. Since the survey defined a "connected" person as someone using a number of different technologies (not just someone using the Internet), discussion could focus not only on survey research methodology, but also on the nuances of interpretation.

My goal in the first section of the course was for students to ponder whether or not an identifiable, distinct cyberculture exists. The published and e-mailed "rants" of Jon Katz, for instance, try to make the case that an interactive, libertarian, "geek culture" prevails in many corners of the Internet. For Katz, the citizens of "Digital Nation," alienated from traditional media and politics, point the way toward new relationships between elites and masses, experts and novices. The data from surveys of Internet users, though, suggest that we are most likely not developing a distinctive cyberculture, let alone a "post-political" society. Instead, cyberculture and cyberpolitics look very much like and exhibit the social and economic biases of mainstream culture and politics.

The second section of the course focused on political activity on the Internet. We examined how parties and candidates were encouraged to use the Internet in the 1996 United States Presidental election, as well as how they have actually used it in the last two years. In particular, using the evaluative criteria we had previously discussed, and relying on recent research into political communication (James and Sadow, 1997), my students examined an award-winning candidate site (e.g., that of New Jersey Governor, Christine Todd Whitman) and evaluated sites for Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate nomination in Indiana. I was surprised at my students' highly developed sensibilities. Most of them expressed disdain for sites that offered "brochureware" or sites that gratuitously used graphic images. Carefully attuned to visual cues, students can readily distinguish good from bad designs. Indeed, one especially good site (for a New York gubernatorial candidate) prompted one student to send him an electronic mail note of praise and good wishes.

From parties and candidates, we turned our attention to organized interest groups and their presence on the World Wide Web. The Internet makes it easy for interest groups to communicate their messages and encourage political action. Looking at the home pages of these groups (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition for the Homeless) one can get a first-hand glimpse of how they educate, inform, and mobilize citizens. Moreover, by following links from one group's site to those of other groups, students can diagram the interconnections among conservative and liberal organizations. Not surprisingly, our sociograms revealed conservative groups to be more closely tied to one another (more inter-linked) than liberal ones. Students also examined the sites of marginal groups such as the American Patriot Network or the groups monitored by Hatewatch. Further, given the demographics of net users, students visited sites oriented toward the political and cultural concerns of women, African Americans, and Chicanos/Latinos.

We followed this look at interest group and identity politics on the Internet with a study of how governments in the United States and elsewhere present themselves on the Web. In particular, students explored the accessibility of government information and the availability of vehicles for citizen feedback. They examined compared the tone and quality political news coverage by major newspapers (on their Web sites) and by online magazines such as Slate and Intellectual Capital. Finally, we concluded the course by discussing claims that the Internet will eventually bring about a revitalized, electronic democracy. Our discussion of cyberdemocracy did not neglect the theoretical import of the Internet, whether concerning the mischiefs of faction or the creation of community.

Unique Features

For me, the course proved especially exciting because we were able to take advantage of some of the unique aspects of life in Cyberia. Many observers have noted that the hallmark of cyberculture is its interactivity. Certainly, we can encourage interactivity by requiring students to use electronic mail to distribute their comments on Web sites to their fellow students and to the instructor. Although the comments I received initially focused on the form and style of a site, it was not long before the students' e-mail messages became more thorough and substantive. I suppose that this transformation occurred because the best students provided good models of critical thinking. Still, nearly all the students soon moved from form to content in their evaluation of Web sites.

Another encounter with the notion of interactivity came through the writings of Jon Katz. He has identified interactivity as the central component of life in cyberspace, and further, he encourages it through his columns in Wired and HotWired. After reading his work both in print and online, my students e-mailed responses to his views on the "Digital Citizen Survey" and his ideas about cyberculture. They were both surprised and pleased to get professional, thoughtful, and pleasant responses from him.

Still another example of interactivity came with student posts to message boards on the CNN Community Web site. Nothing gave my students more of a sense of engagement and empowerment than to see their message posted and have folks take their ideas seriously enough to respond to them in the forum. How better to teach students about political argument and civility than to have them engage in discourse with total strangers?

In addition, the course let us experience the thrills of serendipity on more than one occasion. Because several students had foreign language skills, we were able to view and translate information from home pages of political parties in both Mexico and Serbia. Another incident occurred when one student inadvertently typed .com rather than .gov when navigating to the White House. Doing so led her to a pornographic site that has since been mentioned in the lead to a Congressional Quarterly story on government regulation of the Internet (Gruenwald, 1998). Naturally, the discovery was a perfect time to talk about domain names, blocking software, and of course, the debate over the Communications Decency Act. Not long thereafter, the discussion in class moved from pornography to sex when the Monica Lewinsky story broke and we were able to track developments through the range of outlets on the Internet (including the infamous Drudge Report).

Throughout the course, students impressed me greatly as they developed and exhibited their critical thinking skills. Of course, the daily interaction and dialogue characteristic of a seminar put a premium upon such skills. Even so, it seems to me that the Internet provides us with concrete, accessible tools for developing critical thinking through the experiential, learning-by-doing approach educators have often praised. Such a claim can be made for very few instructional resources currently at our disposal.

Conclusion

As we wrapped up the course near the end of January, the students' reflective essays highlighted a number of lessons learned. First and foremost, my students learned of the untold wealth of information about government, politics, and policy on the internet. So much information is out there, and it is so readily accessible, that most students plan to use the Internet in other courses and in their daily lives. Whenever they want domestic and international news, or need background information on a policy issue for a term paper or political advocacy, they know exactly where to find it.

For some students, the course helped expand their conception of politics. Because of the Internet's interactivity, politics came to be seen as something more than the distant machinations of parties, candidates, and government officials. Indeed, political life became for them a communal effort, a grand conversation, a frank exchange of views about what society should do.

Most of all, as a result of this class, my students can judge for themselves the merits of claims about the Internet and its effects. So, whether your students hate computers or are among the most incorrigible addicts, a guided tour of Cyberia will definitely help them distinguish hype from reality whether about cyberculture or about politics itself.

About the Author

Leonard Williams is Professor of Political Science at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. He is the author of American Liberalism and Ideological Change and co-editor of Political Theory: Classic Writings, Contemporary Views.
e-mail: lawilliams@manchester.edu
Course pages: http://www.manchester.edu/department/politicalscience/index.htm

References

Anthony Corrado and Charles M. Firestone (eds.), 1996. Elections in Cyberspace: Toward a New Era in American Politics. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Juliana Gruenwald, 1998. "Congress Finds No Easy Answers to Internet Controversies," Congressional Quarterly's American Voter (February 19), at http://voter.cq.com/news/wn19980 2041.htm

Karen James and Jeffrey D. Sadow, 1997. "Utilization of the World Wide Web as a Communicator of Campaign Information," paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C.

Jon Katz, 1997. Media Rants: Postpolitics in the Digital Nation. San Francisco: Hardwired.

Wayne Rash, Jr., 1997. Politics on the Nets: Wiring the Political Process. N. Y.: Freeman.

Howard Rheingold, 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. N. Y.: HarperPerennial.

Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz (eds.), 1996. Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway. N. Y.: New York University Press.

Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini, and Cathy Bryan (eds.), 1998. Cyberdemocracy: Technology, Cities, and Civic Networks. London: Routledge.


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